It’s not exactly clear when the trend started, but French filmmakers are currently making the best old-style Hollywood thrillers. The caffeinated pace, requisite chase scenes, intricate plots are all there. But Gallic filmmakers bring something more to the party: distinctive camera work along with a social critique and complex characters who resonate with the over-thirteen crowd. Claude Lelouche‘s recent thriller “Roman de Gare” plumbed the darker corners of the fame game and a writer’s ego. Now comes “Tell No One” from actor-turned-director Guillaume Canet, a major hit in France and winner of two Cesars. Adapted from the novel by Harlan Coben – six million copies sold, translated in twenty-seven languages – “Tell No One” essentially hangs an action thriller and police procedural on a story of romantic obsession.
For his second directing gig Canet recruited an A-list of French acting talent. Claude Chabrol regular Francois Cluzet plays Alexandre Beck, a pediatrician haunted by the brutal murder of his wife Margot (Marie-Josee Croze) eight years ago at their idyllic lakeside retreat. Only his friendship with his gay sister’s partner (Kristin Scott-Thomas) keeps him tethered to the world beyond his grief. On the anniversary of Margot’s death, Alex receives an email containing language known only to his wife, which leads to a webcam showing her looking toward him from a crowd, apparently alive.
Alex’s desperate quest to locate Margot is thwarted when the police dig up a couple of bodies near the lake where Margot was murdered, along with evidence that implicates Alex. Top cop Francois Berleand reopens the case, with Alex as principal suspect, and the games begin. Aided by a droll lowlife himself in trouble with the law, Alex must outwit and outrace a host of pursuers, including the real perps, to discover the truth about Margot’s disappearance. Along with a spectacular chase scene across the Paris Beltway, we get a cross section of French society: Nathalie Baye as a crusty lawyer, Andre Dussollier as a retiree sitting on a terrible secret or three, Jean Rochefort as a wealthy horsebreeder with a nefarious agenda, and Canet himself as a monied slimeball at the fulcrum of the plot.
On a steamy June day indieWIRE sat down with Guillaume Canet, just in from L.A., jet-lagged, and slimmer than anyone has a right to be. Canet speaks a serviceable English that sometimes needs French backup and put me in mind of certain actors whose faces, through some mysterious alchemy, find their fullest appeal in front of a camera.
indieWIRE: How did you discover the novel by Harlan Coben?
Guillaume Canet: I was writing my 2nd script [“Mon Idole” was the first] when someone in the production office where I was working thought I should read Coben’s book. As I read, I could picture the film in my mind’s eye. What I liked was the love story as the engine of the thriller — which goes against the usual thriller. And the characters were very powerful and deep. Then in 2005 I heard the movie was going to be made in the States. I ran into Michael Apted in L.A. and said, You’re going to do a movie about a book that I love. He said, I won’t be doing it after all. I pretended to go to the bathroom and called my producer and told him: We have to go after the rights.
What were the challenges of adapting an American story to a French milieu?
The main challenge was to adapt the novel for the screen. There were things that were easily resolved in the book that wouldn’t work on film. Like a character who says, “I heard that … etc. ” In a movie, that’s impossible. The problem was the book was so well written, the moment you take something out, the rest falls apart. I changed the ending – but Harlan Coben loved what we came up with.
I saw “Tell No One” partly as a story about how an intimate partner can have a totally secret life.
Well, Margot is a mysterious figure. Marie-Josee Croze is good at that – she has a sad, dreamy quality. Women have their secrets. People live alongside partners and don’t know they have a double life. Like in Germany: this guy had a daughter in the basement and was making childrens [sic] with her. I can’t believe the wife never knew that.
I was intrigued by how “Tell No One” mixes several genres.
That’s what I like in films – and what I like in my life, too. If you’re just watching the traditional thriller, you have no surprise. But it’s interesting to watch a film that takes you by the hand and reveals different genres inside it and evokes all kinds of emotions.
It also feels like you inverted the codes of the thriller genre. Instead of tacking a love story onto a thriller, it’s the love story that takes precedence here.
That was vital for me from the very beginning. As a result, I didn’t shoot it like a thriller. I wanted it to be sunny, for the action to take place in summer, with beautiful light. I didn’t want sinister characters and music, where it’s raining the whole time. I wanted a real contrast between what Alex is going through and what is happening around him. I found it more interesting that the world around him should be at odds with his dark emotions.
That action set-piece where the cops are chasing Alex across the Paris Beltway is thrilling.
It was quite complicated. We have five hours to shoot – we were supposed to have three days. But that gave urgency to the scene. I was running everywhere with my camera, shooting all the time. Telling Francois, run there, go there. He had to do all the stunts. All the cars were drivers working with us.
You had to close down the Beltway?
Yes, for five hours.
The Parisians must have loved that.
They were furious. For months after, people in the street were insulting me because they missed their planes to go on vacation. And it was the only way to go to Charles de Gaulle airport. It was on the radio that they should avoid the Beltway because Canet was shooting there.
Could you describe how you shot the Beltway scene?
It was the only scene that was storyboarded. Because it was so nerve-wracking and quite dangerous, especially when Francois crosses between the cars. I wanted one wide shot at the beginning to show the Beltway. And after that I wanted to be only with Alex, using a hand held camera. I didn’t want to do an action scene. I wanted to do a romantic scene. That’s why the music is not the music of an action scene. It sounds romantic, with a guitar and a cello. Yes, Alex was chased by the police, but he was running for love, because he had this meeting with his wife, and it was the only way to know if she was alive or not … The second wide shot was at the end, with all the cars and the accident.
How did you stage that spectacular accident?
It’s a choreography that the stunt men had to rehearse. A stunt guy stood there and we just threw all the cars together and the truck goes bang bang bang. That was really scary, because with the lack of time we could do only one take.
This is only your second film. What gave you the confidence you could take on this complex story?
I was excited about having those actors telling that story. I think when you’re passionate you forget all the doubt and anxiety and just go for it.
How did you assemble such a stellar cast?
By my passion. And they all really loved the script. There are many great characters in it. And they really liked my first film, “Mon Idole.”
Were you able to pay them well? Yeah. You know, my first film worked quite good [sic] in France. And the book [by Coben] was a bestseller. We had a big problem, though, before we shoot the film, when I decided I wanted Francois Cluzet. Three of the bigest financiers pulled out saying they wouldn’t do the film because Francois wasn’t a big enough name. Finally we did the film with less money. And Francois ended up winning the Cesar for best actor.
So who did give you money?
Canal Plus and Europa Corps.
How much did the film cost?
Ten million euros, It’s a good boojet [budget] for a French film.
Who are the French stars who can open a film?
Oh, Vincent Cassel, Daniel Auteuil. They always want the same people. I knew I needed a partner on this film, who’d be ready to be as passionate as I was and to do anything. And that’s what happened with Francois. And that’s the most important thing when you’re doing a film: to be sure that the actor you’re working with is going to give you everything. That it’s really important in his life at this moment to do a movie like this. Francois hadn’t had a part like this in a really long time. He was so passionate and grateful to me to be able do the part. And I was grateful to him, he was giving me so much. We were in really great complicity. He was throwing himself nude into a lake at 5 A.M. while the whole crew was bundled up in fleece jackets. Then I had him running for ten straight days and he never complained. He also has the most expressive eyes. When he sees Margot on the internet, the camera holds on him. He doesn’t move but his eyes reveal a whole range of emotion: surprise, doubt, suspicion, fear. Francois nails it every time.
As an actor, what do you bring to the table when you’re behind the camera?
Many things. I learned from all the directors I worked with, like Jerry Schatzberg, Patrice Chereau, Danny Boyle. Though I wasn’t really spying on them, I’d see them working. And that’s somehow how I arrived at my method.
Could you give me an example of something you learned?
Usually when a director says Cut on the set, everyone moves, there’s lots of noise, it’s difficult to focus. When Patrice Chereau says Cut nobody would move. As if we were still rolling. I loved that. He’d come and talk to you, everything is quiet and you stay focused. You’re still in what you just did, so you can concentrate and then pick up from there. I’ve never seen that with any other director.
Did you go to film school?
No, I just learned from short films I made. The best school is to grab a camera and try to learn what it says and what it expresses when you put it there or or there. It always say [sic] something different.
The plot of “Tell No One” is laughably convoluted. I confess I didn’t understand every wrinkle – and unlike with a book, you can’t page back. Were you concerned viewers would get lost?
Watching it in France is easier because you don’t have the subtitles. Yes, I was quite anxious that people would have trouble following it here. The day before I was in L.A., then New York for a screening with a Q and A at the end. And everybody understood the film and loved it. People here say they don’t like subtitles – but they forgot about that after five minutes. I think it’s interesting to see movies that make you think.
Would you say that France is trending toward making these brainy thrillers? Sort of beating Hollywood filmmakers at their own game?
I didn’t do it because it’s a trend. But it’s possible. French films are moving away from art films. Beause it’s a new generation and we’ve been inspired by American films. For instance, I admire Jerry Schatzberg, Peckinpah, Friedkin, Michael Mann, Scorsese, P.T. Anderson … And I like the fact that we can mix really nice shots with a good story. For a long time in French films you just had a great story, but gave no effort to the way it was shot. The films d’auteur are for a small group, the intelligentsia. I want to open my films to more people, who can identify with the story.